An issue of faith

jesus papersThe aspect I appreciate most about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is how it has raised the public profile of the concept of faith. The controversy behind the factual basis of the book has led the curious down a twisted and confusing historical path that forces one to raise one's hands and surrender to the crushing blackness that is those things in the past that we just cannot know absolutely. But history matters, and the truths that can be wrought out of it are critical for understanding the things around us, and in this case those things deal with religion. But often coming to those truths in one's own life requires a measure of faith, and unfortunately journalists often forget this when reporting on these controversies.

USA Today brings us the news of a book titled The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. The book is written by Brown's nemesis Michael Baigent, who is suing Brown in a British court for allegedly ripping Baigent's research for massive portions of The Da Vinci Code. All the while, Baigent has been planning a way to get a dollar or two in the wake of the massive Da Vinci code publicity:

"I don't think there's any such thing as a coincidence in publishing anymore," says Russell Perreault of Anchor, publisher of the Da Vinci paperback.

But Baigent, by phone from London, says it "absolutely" was not planned.

"There have been a lot of coincidences this year, at least I assume they are coincidences," he says. "It's funny, with just being on trial, and now we're head-to-head with books."

One would think that the publishing of Baigent's book should be welcome by all who appreciate an honest debate over the historical issues. Let the facts in Brown's book be laid out for all to examine without the cloud of historical fiction. But like The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers is misleading in its title, as aptly pointed out by the Lost Angeles Times' Nick Owchar:

Much light is also shed on Baigent. "The Jesus Papers" is a very personal book. He's outraged by the early Catholic Church's consolidation of power, its crushing of dissent, its exclusion of women from leadership; he laments that vibrant texts like the Gnostic gospels were buried in the desert to protect them. He includes photos of himself at excavation sites and crouching in tunnels as if to suggest that understanding the faraway past requires some kind of physical contact.

"I love to travel to sacred sites and to feel them, to seek to understand them," he writes. "Are such places intrinsically sacred, or do we make them so? Perhaps both. Sacred sites demand participation from the visitor, an entering into a relationship with them, an experience. And there lies the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist."

Pretty soon, the reader realizes that there probably won't be any "Jesus documents" -- that this book is really a private credo, an intimate declaration of belief dressed up to be the religious bombshell of the millennium. But then the long-anticipated appearance of the documents comes (or does it?) near the end. Baigent meets with an unidentified antiquities dealer who shows him two pieces of parchment:

"Each was about eighteen inches long and nine inches high. ... These were ... the letters from Jesus to the Sanhedrin. They existed. I was silent as I fully enjoyed the moment."

. . . Experts will debate such details for a long time, but the disappointing thing about "The Jesus Papers" is that Baigent's personal search for the figure of Jesus is obscured by the hype of the book's packaging -- as if to say such personal quests don't mean much anymore.

Brown's theories -- er, Baigent's theories -- are repackaged and removed from the ambiguity of a novel and what we have is a "private credo" that is based on faith? Ironically, Baigent's recent book is based more on a personal faith than the work of Brown, who seems to merely have had faith in Baigent's research.

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